ANN ARBOR -- If Brady Hoke were the captain of a sinking ship, there's no question he would stay at the helm all the way to the bottom.
Right now, he might be doing just about the same thing.
As Michigan's season dissolves into irrelevance, Hoke is sticking by one rule. He's not going to put the blame on anyone but himself.
"I'm going to have to do a better job of coaching," Hoke repeated time and again after the 17-13 loss to Nebraska. After a couple lucky wins in a 5-0 start, Michigan has now lost three of four.
An offensive coordinator (Al Borges) who insists on a power-running attack, even when the team rushes for minus-69 yards in back-to-back losses? Hoke isn't going to hear any criticism.
"I liked the playcalling today," he said. "We didn't make the plays that we should have made, and that means I have to do a better job."
A quarterback who has been sacked 14 times in two games and appears to be a shell of the dynamic playmaker that helped Michigan beat Notre Dame? Hoke's not going to put any of this on his shoulders, either.
"He may have held the ball too long once or twice, but you have to give Nebraska some credit for their coverage," he said. "His legs are fine. He took some shots, but he's fine. He's in good spirits, because he's a competitor."
No matter what Hoke was asked, he turned the blame back on himself.
"Our kids are working hard, they are practicing hard, and they are fighting in every game," he said. "The effort is fine. We won games as a team, and we are losing games as a team, and I have to make sure that doesn't change. I'm the one in charge, and I have to do a better job."
As noble as that might be, the fact remains that Hoke isn't the one calling the plays, he's not the one getting blown up while trying to block, and he's not the one missing key tackles in the last two minutes. He can deflect the responsibility onto himself, but there are a lot of other things that need to change before the Wolverines can start beating quality teams.
It all starts with the offensive line. For the second year in a row, Michigan has spent the entire season talking about the need to get their tailback involved in the running game, but it hasn't happened. Saturday, Derrick Green and Fitz Toussaint carried the ball 17 times for 17 yards, slamming numerous times into a wall of Nebraska defenders before they even hit the line of scrimmage.
"The negative plays are what kill you, because when you lose yardage on first down, it means you have a tougher third-down conversion," Hoke said.
Toussaint was even worse when used as a pass blocker, with several of the sacks coming after he was beaten by a rusher. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, he's considered a much better pass protector than Green, a true freshman who struggled in the role last week against Michigan State.
"That's definitely something we are trying to get fixed, and we're going to keep working on it," Hoke said. "It it a concern? Yes, but everything is a concern when you aren't performing. Blocking, tackling, making plays on both sides of the ball. It's all a concern."
The situation seems to cry out for something to relieve the pressure on Gardner, since the running game can't do it. Screen passes are a traditional way to do that, and Michigan's longest play of the game came on a 25-yard screen play to Toussaint. They also picked up a first down on a middle screen to Devin Funchess, but the plays remain rarities in Borges' game plan.
"We have some of those plays, and there are times that they are there for us, and there are times they aren't," Hoke said. "The main thing is that we aren't finishing plays anywhere on the field."
As bad as the offense was, the defense had a chance to clinch the game when Nebraska faced 4th-and-2 on the Michigan 31 with time running out. The Cornhuskers didn't want to try a tying field goal into the teeth of a gusty wind, so Tommy Armstrong threw a quick pass to Kenny Bell on the sideline.
Bell caught the pass at the first-down marker, broke tackles from Channing Stribling and Dymonte Thomas -- both true freshmen -- and went all the way to the Michigan 5. Three plays later, Armstrong pulled off a left-handed option flip to Ameer Abdullah for the winning touchdown.
"We have to get that guy down," said defensive captain Courtney Avery. "We have to finish plays, and that is a place where we didn't do it."
Avery, though, quickly dismissed any thoughts of the defense being frustrated at having to carry the hapless offense.
"You can never start looking at this as offense against defense," he said. "That's the fastest way to split a team. We win as a team, and we lose as a team."
Last week, the Wolverines had their toughness and character questioned in a national column, and while they didn't do much to change anyone's opinion on Saturday, Gardner still doesn't want to hear it.
"Anyone who questions our toughness can shove it," Gardner said, showing a rare flash of emotion on a day when most of the fire seemed to have been beaten out of him.